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Public interest groups from across Canada sent the following letter to the Honourable Elinor Caplan, Minister of National Revenue, supporting the position of George Radwanski, Privacy Commissioner of Canada, on CCRA's plans to establish a massive "Big Brother" database on the foreign travel activities of all law-abiding Canadians.
November 13, 2002
The Honourable Ms. Elinor Caplan
Minister of National Revenue
Canada Customs and Revenue Agency
555 MacKenzie Avenue
Dear Ms. Caplan:
RE: Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record Database
We are writing to you jointly to express our dismay at the ever-increasing and unjustified surveillance of travellers being carried out by your department and to urge you to dismantle the API-PNR database.
We share the concerns of George Radwanski, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, about the operation and expansion of this database and the process by which it came into being.
We will not repeat the extensive and compelling arguments made by Mr. Radwanski, or the other interventions from various provincial Privacy Commissioners. However, we do support these arguments, and we are concerned that the API-PNR database violates both the federal Privacy Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the Minister responsible, you should be concerned as well.
We have a particular objection to the process by which this database has been created. The legislative authority you are relying upon to establish and maintain this database was contained in Bill S-23, an obscure piece of legislation from the last session that amended the Customs Act. It is so obscure that even the Library of Parliament did not prepare a legislative summary of this bill. It rocketed through the Commons in a month, receiving little scrutiny or attention.
Most disturbing are the statements by the Privacy Commissioner that he received assurances from your officials assuaging his concerns about this legislation, after which the government acted in a contrary fashion. In his letter to you dated September 26, the Commissioner stated that on the basis of those assurances he did not seek to appear before either the House or Senate committees studying this bill. The government's conduct has been contemptuous of the Privacy Commissioner and of his role as ombudsman of the privacy interests of Canadians. There is a large body of precedent in which federal agencies have consistently followed the recommendations of the current Commissioner and his predecessors. But if a federal agency chooses not to follow the Commissioner's recommendations, then the least Canadians can expect from the agency is that it provides cogent and persuasive argument why it does not intend to. We have yet to see this from your department.
We are struck by the contrast between the treatment of personal information under the API-PNR database versus Bill C-17, the Public Safety Act, which your government has just reintroduced. Bill C-17 deals with the same sort of airline information which is to be collected by CCRA.
We wish to emphasize that we do not endorse Bill C-17, but it is curious that it provides better privacy protection than the CCRA database. First, the information collected must be destroyed within seven days, unless it is "reasonably required for the purposes of transportation security or the investigation of threats to the security of Canada." This is much shorter than the six years your ministry will retain it. Second, Bill C-17 requires that CSIS and the RCMP review the retained information at least once a year and order the information to be destroyed if there is no justification for its retention. Your ministry does not appear to be undertaking any such review and removal of personal information.
The API-PNR database was originally intended to contain information concerning airline travellers. Through the media, it has now come to our attention that the database has been expanded to include travellers arriving on ferries, cruise ships, busses and trains. This will greatly increase the personal information the government may sift through, making the database both more intrusive and probably less effective in preventing terrorist activities.
In the aftermath of September 11, Canadians have been told to expect that life will change. We will now be subject to tighter controls and greater scrutiny when we cross the border or when we travel. Canadians are willing to do so in good faith but only if changes are made transparently with clear justification and if there is an appropriate balance between privacy and national security.
In closing, we urge you to exercise your authority and uphold your responsibility for the CCRA by ordering the suspension of this excessive intrusion into travellers' privacy rights, at least until it is properly scrutinized and approved by Parliament.
We look forward to your response.
(Original Signed by)
British Columbia Civil Liberties Association
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
Public Interest Advocacy Centre (Ottawa)
Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties
Thomas B. Riley
Executive Director and Chair
Commonwealth Centre for e-Governance
Prof. Richard Rosenberg
Electronic Frontier Canada
National Privacy Coalition
cc: George Radwanski, Privacy Commissioner of Canada